Composting 101 – How to Start a Compost Pile

The first year living on our off grid property we didn’t plan on having a garden because we simply had too many other more important projects. That said, because we do want a garden in the near future, we figured that we should start composting now! In this post we want to go over composting 101 which is how to start a compost pile… you know, the simple way!

Starting a compost pile is so simple yet for me, it was a little intimidating because there is simply too much information on the subject! In the end, I decided to not even try to aim for perfection but to simply get started, and I’m happy I did.

Six months later, and we already have a lovely heap of compost, although small, and this fall we spent some time gathering even more organic matter for our pile. As with anything, it seems to get easier and more obvious over time, which I’m extremely happy to report.

Here are the basics of what our composting experience looks like so far.

Decide on a Compost Bin

In all honesty, Mother Nature doesn’t use any type of compost bin… organic matter simply falls on the ground to deteriorate, and it all works out!

That said, we chose to have some sort of bin to keep things feeling contained, and also to be able to build the pile up fairly deep.

We chose to go with a diy compost bin out of reclaimed pallets. This was extremely low-tech… it doesn’t even have a fourth side! This is because we wanted to be able to get in to turn the pile on occasion. So far, this approach is working for us.

There are a number of compost bin plans out there, but if you want to buy one, many like to go the route of the tumbling compost bin. In all honesty, this type of bin is probably a bit small for our property since we want to compost in large quantities, but it’d be perfect for the urban homesteader that really wants to keep things tidy and doesn’t predict having a ton of yard waste!

how to make a compost pile and bin

How to Start a Compost Pile – Add Organic Material

This is the hard part… you ready? All you need to do is add material to the compost pile! In a nutshell, you need to add carbon and nitrogen in somewhat equal amounts or in other words, “brown” stuff and “green” stuff.

Add Carbon

Carbon is stuff that’s typically dry, which is why it’s referred to as brown material. This may be the easiest material to come by in bulk, especially if have property or live in a rural area.

Brown stuff includes dead leaves, paper, cardboard, straw, hay, pine needles and even sawdust. If you don’t have this on your own property, it should be fairly easy to come by. Leaves are easy to collect in fall, if you’re lucky you can pick up as many bags as you can handle curbside, and people are trying to get rid of things like rotting hay or straw all of the time. Pick it up!

Many of these things can also make a great garden mulch.

cabon for adding to compost pile

Add Nitrogen

Nitrogen is stuff that’s moist for the most part, which is why it’s referred to as green material. This seems to be harder for us to come by, but it may be different for you.

Green stuff includes lawn clippings (try to get these pesticide and herbicide free if you can), food waste, coffee grounds, plant trimmings and even manure. Manure if a great way to get a pile hot but it’s not something we’ve experimented with yet.

In the end, don’t stress too much! Just add what you have! If the pile seems too dry then add some green stuff. If the pile seems too wet and it starting to get slimy or smelly, try to find some brown stuff to add. Easy peasy.

adding nitrogen to make compost pile

Compost Pile Maintenance

Maintaining a compost pile is ridiculously easy. In fact, you really don’t need to do much to it at all as all things decompose with time, but there are a few things you can do if you want to speed up the composting process.

Keep the Pile Moist

If you want your composting process to happen as quickly as possible, it would be wise to keep the pile moist. If you live in an area with rain, you might be set!

For us, because we’re off grid and have limited access to water, we didn’t do a very good job keeping our pile moist. We did try to dump our sink water on the pile when we remembered or weren’t feeling lazy which helped, but some suggest giving the pile a good hose down on occasion to keep it moist.

composting 101 - how to start a compost pile

Rotate or Churn the Pile

A compost pile does need oxygen to compost and churning the pile every once in a while will stir things up and add in oxygen to the mix.

We chose to turn ours over with a shovel once a month or so but you can do it as frequently as every couple of weeks.

A popular method is to take a compost aerator and stick it deep into the pile to do the churning for you. Some swear by this and claim that it’s a lot less work than going through the entire pile with a shovel… but we have yet to try it.

The other option is to buy a compost tumbler where you can turn the pile by simply turning a handle. Again, this is a great option for someone who only wants to compost on a small scale or is in an urban setting!

how to maintain a compost pile

Keep the Pile Hot

Have you ever driven by a field with a heap of cow manure in it on a cold day and seen the pile steaming? This is because the microbial activity in the decomposition process puts off a lot of heat… and manure especially can really heat up a compost pile!

One way to build heat in a compost pile is to make the pile big enough. A cubic yard is a good size to aim for. Ours was tiny this year so every time I’d stick my hand in the middle of it, it felt cool, but like I said, we still had finished compost in six months.

If you’re curious as to what the temperature is in your compost pile, you can try using a compost thermometer. We don’t feel the need for one yet, but you may want one if you’re uber scientifically-curious!

When is the compost finished?

The compost is finished when it looks a lot like dirt. Our small pile took about six months to fully compost and that was with taking poor care of the pile.

At that time, it’s best to add it to your garden soil.

For us, the garden isn’t ready yet, so I read that it can be good to tarp it or even store it in a garbage can as excess water can wash away some of the nutrients. I may do this before winter sets in.

finished compost

Taking it Further With Worm Composting

Another way to compost, or a way to simply enhance your exist compost, is to use worms. Here is a worm composting kit that can be good to start with… you only need to add worms to get going!

When we were buying our water tank from a guy off Craigslist, we discovered that he had a large worm composting farm and he offered up a bucket of red wigglers to us! Of course, we said yes!

worm compost bin

We keep these in a double bucket system… one bucket (holes in the bottom) with worms and organic matter in it and another bin to catch any moisture or liquid from the worm bin. This is also known as “worm tea“. This tea is great to pour into the garden. Worm poo, also known as worm castings, are also a great organic addition to the soil.

The guy that gave us the worms told us that red wigglers double their population in 90 days. At this point, we should have A LOT more worms than we started with, but it’s hard to tell for sure as the bucket seems to be filling up with castings very slowly.

Putting the worms into the compost can help speed up the composting process – that’s what my sister does in Southern California! I would think that tossing them on a dry pile though may not be their favorite thing, so I’d personally wait until the pile is decomposing and is somewhat dirt-like.

composting with worms

Having a Kitchen Compost Bin

Another thing you can do to help grow your pile is to have a small kitchen compost bin on your counter. This isn’t where you want the composting to take place, but you do want a non-smelly way to toss your fruit and veggie scraps until you’re ready to take them to the compost pile.

Kitchen compost bins have an air tight lid and carbon filters to control odor. We don’t have one of these because we don’t have a single inch of counter space (or even cupboard space) in our travel trailer… but we’ll be getting one for the house! Right now, I actually throw a decent amount of food scraps away because it’s time consuming to go out to the compost pile with tiny batches.

composting kitchen scraps

Composting 101: Recommended Reading

There is A LOT more to know about composting if you want to further your education. We feel that we’ve learned enough to get started but we do plan on investing in our education further when the time comes. We’re on the wait list for the Master Garderners program which is a place to start, but having books on the subject would be nice as well.

Let It Rot! The Gardener’s Guide to Composting

This book pretty elaborate on composting… it follows the guideline of this blog post somewhat but goes much further into depth, especially regarding the science of it all.

The Complete Compost Gardening Guide

books on how to start a compost pileThis book is similar to the one above but goes into even more depth and covers a wider variety of topics. It also has lots of beautiful photos and is well-designed overall. In this book you can also find information on vermicomoposting, or using worms for compost.

Building Soil: A Down-To-Earth Approach

composting & gardening bookThis book is great for learning how to strengthen soil and build the foundation for a thriving garden overall… composting is just one component of good soil!

Tips & Tricks of How to Get Free Compost Materials

If you’re like us, even if you have property, you don’t have an abundant amount of compost-able material. We have five acres and what to compost isn’t obvious!

That said, we’ve scored some ways to get free compost materials with a little ingenuity… we’re happy to share what those are!

Wrapping It Up

Starting a compost pile doesn't HAVE to be difficult... it really can be done in just a few simple steps. Click through to get tips on where to find FREE compost materials, regardless of where you live, plus an awesome video on how to get your compost pile started today!And that’s all there is to it… for us at least! Again, I’m sure there are ways to improve on your compost pile with time but it doesn’t have to be complicated to get started. We’re happy we stopped stressing and took action – and we are rewarded already with a rich, beautiful compost pile.

Get Involved!

What is your experience with composting? Do you find that you learn a lot overtime or do you realize overtime that it really is straightforward and simple? What tips and tricks do you have that you can share on composting? As always, we love to hear your feedback!

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I am an aspiring homesteader on a journey to become self-sustainable and free. In my past, I've worked corporate jobs to make ends meet and get ahead a little; it didn't make me happy or confident in my future. Since taking the leap to self-employment and living a more simple life, my happiness levels have increased greatly and I've never felt more alive. I finally understand what I want in life and how to get there, and that is what this blog is all about.

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Comments

  1. Jess says

    Alyssa-
    Good compost is one of my favorite smells, and I love what it does for the garden! During the summer, there seems to be an abundance of green compost. Adding sticks to the pile can help to aerate it si turning isn’t as necessary. I still enjoy turning the pile because the middle is where the earthy fragrance is best.
    Also once you decide where you are going to put your garden you can save time, use less water and energy by lasagna gardening. Put cardboard or a thick layer of paper down over your grass or weeds (no need to till) then do another layer of green do a bit of your compost or better yet some of your worm stuff then go brown and green again til you are ready to top it off with a couple inches of your compost for planting. The layers on the bottom will decompose and provide moisture as it does for your plants. Enjoy! Jess

  2. Mary says

    So glad you posted what finished compost looks like. Many years ago, we started our first compost pile and my son would turn it every week. Towards the end, I went out to investigate it and found a pile of “dirt” and was completely befuddled as to where the compost had gone. Needless to say, from that day on, I recognized finished compost.

    I now have a minimum of two piles–one maturing and one we actively add to. I never water (living in a part of the world which receives regular rainfall helps), nor do I turn it. I really don’t pay attention to what I add, other than abiding by the “no meat, no fats, no oils” and “little bit of everything” rules. At the end, I have beautiful, rich compost.

    Two things people often forget they can add are hair (including clumps of animal fur after brushing a cat or dog) and urine (including peeing directly onto the pile). Urine is actually nitrogen rich and can help speed up the decomposition of the matter in the pile.

    • says

      So happy you don’t do much pile maintenance and it works out! Exactly my limited experience! Yes, we put urine on the pile on occasion… we’ve heard it’s great too!

  3. Becky says

    Great post on composting! We are going to give it a try soon but have been a little hesitant because of wildlife. We live in an area where there are bears (I’m guessing there are bears wherever you are as well.) How do you keep wildlife out of the compost pile? We don’t want to be attracting bears, raccoons or other wildlife that could cause issues for us or our neighbors. Thanks for the help and all of the great information y’all share!

    • says

      We do have wildlife here but we haven’t seen much on our property… I don’t suspect we’ll ever see a bear on our property… but we don’t do anything special and haven’t had a problem that we know of. We don’t put animal products in the pile which is recommended to NOT attract wildlife that may be interested in it…. but you may do a little research on that. You may be able to fully enclose the pile if things like coons are a problem.

  4. Dustin says

    -A Round of 4′ tall Fence in any diameter you choose is good for storing your leaves and grass
    -Piles only work in the Summer, as microorganisms go dormant in winter
    -A pitchfork is perfect for flipping your pile
    -Flipping often allows the fastest action, as pile needs oxygen
    -Shoot for 1 part grass to 2 parts leaves. Keep leaves agitated or they will form a mat.
    -Water pile with extra rain water if it is very dry out.
    -Leaves chopped with a push mower can be added directly into soil of beds using a pitchfork.
    -Plant the started plants in the center of a cantaloupe sized handful of compost.
    -Don’t be surprised when your peppers are 4′ tall and tomatoes taller than you are.
    -I water exclusively using rain water from the roof. It’s free and soft.

  5. says

    I understand the theory behind it, and what most people make, isn’t really compost. It’s decayed matter. It’s still better than doing nothing, but I think it helps to understand what the difference is, so you can understand how compost works. A good compost pile, requires inoculants and activators, in order to develop the fungi and microbes. It’s actually the reproductive cycle and dead bodies of these organisms, which provide the benefits to plants.

    You can use a bit of a former compost pile as an inoculant, so always remember to leave a little behind, when you start a new pile. There are other things which make a good compost pile, but I’ll save that for google to explain to the curious. 😉 I would make serious compost if we had the resources for it, but we only have the byproducts of our family of 4, some chickens and guinea pigs.

    We do generate a lot of material to make a pile of compost, but it just comes in dribs and drabs, which isn’t ideal. You need a lot of material at once, to start an active compost. So we make do, as you do – tipping our hat to the proper way, but working within our limitations.

  6. says

    If you don’t have room on the counter for compostable scraps then having the worm bin just outside the door makes it more convenient. What has worked for some is an extra blender container to put the scraps in and then when cleaning up after the meal add some cooking water and blend and pour it on the worm bding. This gets consumed more rapidly than raw scraps. spread a handfull of sawdust on top each time for carbon balance.

  7. Allen says

    We’ve found that getting one of those tall square-ish plastic buckets with the flip tops, like what you may find cat litter sold in, is the easiest way to collect kitchen scraps for later disposal on the compost pile; it seals well when the lid is closed, and is close enough to be convenient when we didn’t want to go outside.

    A properly proportioned compost pile won’t attract wildlife, because it won’t smell like food to them. It won’t even attract flies. A rule of thumb is, if you can smell it, add more carbon.

    (I’m guessing that you might not yet have counter space for a blender, although I’ll take that tip Hans left 😉 & run with it…)

  8. Azriel Collier says

    In the long run, might want to pen off an acre or two to have goats. They are composters that make nice little pellets that with a screen and the pellets dried, you can screen them to a smaller size and easy to use in your garden. Also too, those leaves you are using? That is awesome goat fodder! Give them the sugar energy stored in the leaves and minerals the need. That, along with the grass clippings (especially if gotten fresh) and what they forage out on the pastures and you get fertilizer, milk/cheese, and meat. Also, hides if you really want to be more self-sustaining. And if you do not want to keep the hides, I am sure there are folks you can trade with.
    Oh, I noticed you composting the paperboard egg cartons. They make great seed/plant starters. If using your own compost, be sure to sterilize the compost first and a small solar oven in the summertime would be ideal for such venture. It will allow you to start your plants earlier and choose the healthiest plants for your gaden.

  9. thomas says

    Careful with what you haul from people’s yards. My plants contacted a leaf fungus after I acquired yard clippings from a house down the street for mulching. Three years running after stringent damage control. Could be a coincidence, could not. I’m not sure if composting would have killed the fungus. The debris had leaves and non-native garden plants.

  10. Sally H says

    You said that you do not put animal products in the compost pile, and that is a good idea while the pile is small, but those feathers and guts from the chickens you butchered are an amazing way to get your pile cooking. What you do need to make sure of is that there is at least two feet of composting material on ALL sides of the animal bits you bury.

    I have used my compost pile for disposing of larger animals (goats, specifically) by laying the dead animal next to the pile and turing it over on top of him. This both stirred the pile and disposed of the goat. Six months later I spread the pile on the garden and all I found of the goat was the collar I forgot to remove.

    And, as someone else commented, if your compost pile (or barn) smells it it because it does not have enough carbon, so add more brown stuff.

  11. Debbie says

    Hi guys –

    I just thought you might be interested in Hugelkultur if you haven’t already heard about it. Dig a trench, bury a log and/or branches, plus any other biomass you have, put soil over the top and plant your garden on the mound. It can last for more than 20 years, and It makes it’s own compost, heat, and water- with no tilling! It’s like magic!

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